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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
You don't have to put yourself into a trance to enjoy the high spirits currently prevailing at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray's High Spirits is a deliciously mindless and winning musical adaptation of one of Noël Coward's deliciously mindless and winning comedy Blithe Spirit. While a hit when it opened on Broadway in 1964, it did not have the legs to carry it to the kind of steady revival life of its inspirational source. That's why the BTF is to be commended for getting out its Ouija board and spiriting it back to life, even if only for the usual two week run its busy summer schedule demands.
Coward who wore many hats -- author, composer, lyricist, librettist, actor or director wrote his lighter than air comedy during a one week burst of creative energy in 1940. The oh-so-blithe spirit he invented to dominate his sleekly funny plot was the ghost of a mystery novelist's first wife. To conjure her up there's a daffy, bicycle-riding medium named Madame Arcati who's been invited to give a post-dinner seance to help the writer with research for a new book. The mystery quickly veers from his fictional endeavor to his plight as the first ever astral bigamist, with a real wife and a ghost wife who are intensely jealous of each other.
When Blithe Spirit opened in London on July 2, 1942 it proved itself a perfect escape from the grim realities of World War II. It ran for 1,997 performances, toured all over England and also met with great success when it arrived in New York where it played for almost two years. According to Coward's friend, lover and literary executor, Graham Payn, Blithe Spirit is one of the three most frequently revived of Coward's plays. The 1945 movie version remains a video golden oldie.
The musicalization has had a slower somewhat rockier ride from idea to stage. Hugh Martin, a Coward aficionado, and writer-performer Timothy Gray had to win the playwright's approval and their own collaboration faltered for a while. In 1964, more than ten years after the idea was first conceived, High Spirits finally materialized as a Broadway show with Beatrice Lillie as Madame Arcati and Tammy Grimes as Elvira the ghost-wife and lyrics smart enough to have sprung from Coward's own pen. As Coward wrote in his diary upon being asked to give his approval to the musical: "The music is melodic and delightful, the lyrics really witty, and they have done a complete book outline keeping to my original play and yet making it effective as a musical."
Coward's praises apply to the production mounted at the BTF. There are some first act huffs and puffs, but even before the intermission, the show moves into high gear that sent the applause meter at the opening performance I attended soaring. The songs are not memorable in the sense of hum-and-sing memorable, but they are easy to enjoy. The lyrics have bite and blend smoothly with such Coward-isms as the debonair Charles Condomine's "It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit."
The shallow BTF stage is a challenge to anyone putting on a musical, but choreographer Daniel Pelzig has proved himself up to the challenge, as has James Noone with a tri-level set that accommodates a four piece orchestra that includes a grand piano and a large keyboard synthesizer and the splendid ten-member cast.
Mary Lou Rosato, who was a scene-stealing meanie in a Broadway revival of Once Upon a Mattress several seasons ago (linked below) is a hilariously beady-eyed, over-the-top Madame Arcati. Her "duet" with her Ouija board, the droll "Talking to You," is a tour de force of comedic timing and strong singing.
As for the high-spirited blithe spirit she conjures up, I couldn't think of a lovelier and more deliciously mischievous ghost than Tamara Tunie to haunt the Condomine's home. She's a glittering vision of gold lamé and has a voice that would sound good without any amplification. Her sparkling "Home Sweet Heaven" in which she expounds on the good times and friends to be found away from this earth does full justice to that song's particularly outstanding lyrics.
Casey Biggs is somewhat uncomfortable with his English accent and a tad short on glamour as the beleaguered Charles Condomine. (Something more dashing than the turtleneck Lindsay W. Davis has him wear in the second act would have helped). However, he has a fine voice and his "If I Gave You" duet with Ruth is one of the show's loveliest ballads.
Lauren Mitchell embodies the cool and controlling Ruth and sings with clarity and power. . Super slim as she is, lines like "is she thinner than me" in "Was She Prettier Than Me" may be something of a stretch -- but then, since this is one of the most implausible of comedies (with or without music) I'm probably splitting hairs to say those lyrics should have been adjusted.
Under Mr. Carpenter's smooth direction, the "heavenly host" ensemble ably navigates the songs and dances. Jody Madaras comes across as a particularly nimble dancer.
Now that the BTF has popped the cork from the champagne bottle celebrating the beginning of it's 70th anniversary season, here's a toast that the dramas to follow will also snap, crackle and pop.
My Life With Noël Coward by Graham Payn with Barry Day, a fascinating memoir
Present Laughter 1996-97 Broadway revival of another Coward Play
I Will Come Back an off-Broadway production about Judy Garland, also by Martin and Gray
Once Upon a Mattress revival starring "Madame Arcati"